THE BLOG

Can AI Save Us From Drowning In Data?

05/09/2016 14:13 | Updated 05 September 2016

I live a building called The Copan in São Paulo. It's an iconic and very famous building designed by the most famous architect in Brazil - Oscar Niemeyer. Niemeyer is known globally as the man who designed the entire capital city of Brazil, Brasília, and he was still working on new projects when he recently died in 2012, just days before his 105th birthday.

If you visit São Paulo and send a postcard home then it's highly likely that the Copan building will be featured on that card. Yet here is the strange thing, about half the time I jump in a taxi and ask the driver to take me to The Copan they look at me as if to say "This city has over 20 million people so I need an address, not just the name of a building!"

Yet imagine getting into a London taxi and asking for The Barbican or asking for The Flatiron in New York and being greeted with a blank stare. Although it sounds bizarre (especially in London) I'm sure that it sometimes happens.

But here is the stranger thing, when I tell São Paulo taxi drivers that The Copan is on Avenida Ipiranga, an enormous and well-known central road, they invariably plug the address into a GPS system so it can guide them to the destination. Not only do many of the drivers not know major landmarks in their own city, but they can't plan how to get there without a GPS system doing the work.

At one level it might just be that many taxi drivers are operating without any knowledge of the city where they work, but I keep wondering if there is not something else happening here. Are we naturally overlaying technology as a supportive crutch in ways that are just becoming more visible than ever before?

It's a fact that the amount of knowledge out there in the world is rapidly increasing all the time. At present we double the amount of information known to humans every ten months and this rate is increasing. Is the only way to stay on top of this explosion in knowledge to apply a layer of artificial intelligence on to our own natural abilities?

There is an enormous opportunity to improve the way we learn and work thanks to this proliferation of information and the tools we now have to access it. However, if we don't organise it then our lives can feel as if they are drowning in more information than we can possibly handle. How many people today think that email is a useful tool that helps you to stay in touch? To most it feels more like a burden. Forward-thinking company leaders are rapidly finding ways to reduce the reliance on email for communication precisely because it just creates a situation where it is harder for people to communicate.

Some organisations are thinking about how they can overlay intelligence for customers on this tsunami of data. In the UK the challenger bank Atom is using artificial intelligence to improve their customer support. The system never forgets a single customer query so it can rapidly learn answers to all but the most complex questions - the system will often help the customer before they ever need to speak to a human on the customer service team.

In Sweden, the train company Stockholmståg has a system that analyses all train movements in real-time. With cause and effect knowledge of how a delay in one location may ripple through to others the system can predict delays and inform customers before a delay has even occurred. That's right, the system knows exactly how one train not leaving on time will affect everyone else across the entire network.

The initial problem I mentioned was how taxi drivers are substituting their own knowledge with information systems. It seems natural to me that a professional driver would have a base level of information on major landmarks in the city where they operate, but it appears to be increasingly less important as the use of technology is normalised. As wearables become more common this idea of human augmentation will become even more prevalent to the point where a person not accessing extra information online in real-time will seem distinctly old-school.

However, in the immediate future, smart companies are going to find that this issue of information overload is increasing important. The airline I use regularly in future will be the one that remembers how I like my food and seat without needing to ask. Applying Big Data analysis and artificial intelligence techniques will become essential to prevent us all drowning in data and choices.

I'm speaking about how artificial intelligence can become beneficial intelligence at the Social Robotics & AI conference in Oxford on September 15th. Please click here for more information.

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